Public assembly sign of political maturity

September 21, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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Charles Tan
Young Democrat

Siow Jia Rui from New South Wales, Australia and Arjunan Raviprakash expressed their opinions on rights of assembly in response to David Lok Seow Kang’s letter, ‘Want to hear the silent majority? Let them assemble’.

Siow suggests that Singaporeans should not be seduced into believing that mass assemblies will be good for the country and cites the physical smallness of Singapore as a factor.

It is difficult to understand why if a city like Hong Kong which is about the same size as Singapore have held peaceful demonstrations with no adverse effects (on the contrary have strengthened the political and social fabric of the Hong Kong society) why can’t we have the same?

Hong Kongers who are often portrayed as politically apathetic, displayed their unhappiness with the Tung Chee Hwa Administration when two large scale marches where hundreds of thousands of people turned up.

Siow also attributes our multi-ethnicity and multi-religious society as another reason.

Singapore is not the only country with diverse ethnicities and religions. Countries like the United States and India which guarantee the rights of its people to public assembly have not only survived but also thrived.

Freedom of assembly in Asia

In other parts of Asia, demonstrations between the pan blue and pan green camp in Taiwan has gone on without violence. In both instances, the citizens have displayed their fervent desire for democracy.

In the Philippines, People Power I and II brought down corrupt presidencies of Marcos and Estrada.

The demonstrations started by the Triskati University students in Indonesia toppled the corrupt Suharto regime, which had been ruled for more than 30 years.

The Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 revealed the desire of students who wanted democracy and political change in a communist dictatorship.

The reformasi movement in Malaysia might not have pressurized the government to free Anwar then but it created international attention and caused the popularity of the Malaysian government to slide. Now that Anwar is released, one hopes that he will continue his fight for true democratic reform in Malaysia.

Peaceful assemblies and demonstrations have changed the political climate of a country, bringing down corrupt governments or forcing them to act according to the will of its people.

Siow then quoted the mass demonstrations outside the Republican Convention in New York City as backfiring on challenger John Kerry.

This thinking is simplistic as situations change in open democracies. It is common for candidates to launch attacks and counter-attacks over policies, causing opinion polls to vary. Note that the polls now indicate the Bush and Kerry are neck-and-neck.

The right to assembly is not merely advocated by Western liberals but considered a fundamental human right. It was enshrined in December 10, 1948 by the United Nations and proclaimed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 20 of the Declaration states that everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

What is freedom of assembly?

Freedom of assembly means people of different backgrounds and cultures can
come together publicly and exchange ideas. This allows new ideas to be formed which can contribute to social rejuvenation.

More importantly, it prevents authorities from controlling ideas on the ground and the means to which political changes are made.

In Singapore, that basic right is denied. We are not only deprived of the freedom of assembly but also of association. Groups such as ‘TWC2’ and ‘People Like Us’ are denied the right to form societies which violates that very basic right.

In the United States, the freedom to right of peaceful assembly is a basic tenet of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. It protects the freedom of individuals and allows them to express their views, however, unorthodox it might seem to others. According to the First Amendment Center website:

“Our blueprint for personal freedom and the hallmark of an open society, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.

Without the First Amendment, religious minorities could be persecuted, the government might well establish a national religion, protesters could be silenced, the press could not criticize government, and citizens could not mobilize for social change.”

The First Amendment included the freedom to a free press, speech and petition, which are all absent in Singapore.

While the government believes that political and economical reforms do not need to go hand in hand, one wonders why significant political reforms are not happening here.

Is Singapore, a country with a large proportion of well-educated middle class, unable to assemble peacefully when many of them have already expressed to the government, their desire for more social and political openness?

Amidst the hype of the government calling for a free and open society, Siow’s articles are discomfortingly illiberal.

For the sake of Singapore’s future, it is important that our beliefs, mindset, attitudes, and behaviour take a paradigmatic shift. This shift would have to start from the recognition that human rights are universally accepted as fundamental to society.

Siow suggested that in his travels to “less-developed countries, such as Kenya, Pakistan and Sri Lanka”, he realized that “a country’s people could suffer when abuses of political power were not curbed by the rule of law.” In his letter, Arjunan Raviprakash voiced his displeasure over the demonstrations, which he said could lead to life-threatening situations.

It is erroneous to think that demonstrations automatically lead to riots. Of course there will be instances when a few hooligans will abuse the situation and create trouble. Many times the violence is started by government agents so that the state can have an excuse to crackdown and prohibit demonstrations.

The reasons Siow and Raviprakash offer in support of banning demonstrations is akin to saying that knives should be prohibited because it can be used as a murder weapon. Worse, driving should be banned because people are run down by drunk drivers.

Signs of maturity and openness

The right of assembly is not just a human rights issue. It is an indication of the level of political maturity and openness in a country. For the government to believe that its people can make the right choice for themselves, and for the people to exercise it responsibly.

I’d like to end by quoting Rosa Luxemburg, a German activist, who wrote in her Prison Notes, 1918, The Russian Revolution:

“Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule…Such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shootings of hostages, etc.”